The journey of The Monstrance

Bryan Dietrich delivers another outstanding work of genre poetry in this homage to one of cinema’s greatest stories.

Judging this book by its cover – and it’s somewhat ambiguous title – it’s easy to assume that it’s going to be a book of horror poetry, the Karloffian Monster on the cover having become such a strong symbol for general monstrosity in our literary culture, but this is not the case at all.

That monster on the cover is the focus of the book, which reads like a poetic adaptation of the classic film, or at least the emotions buried in the film. A few elements creep into the narrative from the original Shelley story, but mostly it’s that film which inspires Dietrich here, showing off once again his love of the visual genre media, similar to the look at his love for Star Trek we get a peep show of in his previous Prime Directive collection.

This book, however, is much less personal than his previous collections, especially down from the intense and profoundly introspective The Assumption. Instead, Monstrance concentrates on the story itself, though through the lenses of one intimately familiar with that tale.

The book is divided into five sections of poems, the first and fifth from the point of view of The Monster, and the sections between from the point of view of The Gypsy, The Lame Priest, and The Master.

The elements of each characters’ viewpoints are not overt, are not baseball bats of nostalgic praise, the way most genre homage poetry – even my own, I realize after reading Dietrich’s work here – often comes across. Instead each characters voice comes across and genuine but subtle. They know that we know the story already, and they each have their own motivations for their complex emotes.

Most interesting and compelling is the section from The Gypsy. Each poem is formulated like a letter from the woman back to her mother or sister, in which she describes what it’s like to have an emotional and physical relationship with a man who is made of dead men. The observations that Dietrich makes in her place are clever and show a sort of imaginative insight into the relationship that these two must have shared, so thinly glossed by the film itself.

For the reader it becomes a new side of the story that was perhaps left unconsidered previously. Frankenstein is not just a story about a monster. Here it is a story how the presence, the existence of that ‘monster’ profoundly effects the lives of all those he comes into contact with, especially those he spends a lot of time with. Their outlook and understanding of the world is irrevocably changed by just knowing that the monster exists, that he can exist. It’s hard to make these kind of perceptive leaps when we are simply watching an ancient monster flick, but Dietrich forces us to look at that world in a new, more intuitive way, something that is, after all, the purpose of poetry, rather than to enshrine our interests and hobbies; another thing that most homage poetry usually gets a bit wrong.

I must admit that I am not personally a fan of old monster films, even this Karloff classic, but The Monstrance has shown me a new side of this film in particular, and delighted me along the way. I can only imagine how wonderful this book would be for a reader who really gets into these films.

The Monstrance is available now from Needlefire Poetry.